Interview with Daniel Blythe


This interview was conducted on the 21st December 1996
As it appeared in Broadsword issue eleven

How do you approach writing, setting out plots, themes, etc? How is your day planned when writing? Do you listen to any music to help you through?

Each book starts with an idea which may be part of the plot, or just a scene, or a concept. It's really different every time. It just expands from there, forward and back.

I fit my writing in around the rest of my life. Up until a couple of years ago I lived with flatmates, which was great, but it meant that I had to keep disappearing to be unsociable when I wanted to write. Now, I live with my fiancee and we have an understanding about not treading on each other's toes - she's a teacher, so she needs loads of time and space for preparation, assessment etc. I write late at night, sometimes till about 3a.m. As for music in the background, I wrote Infinite Requiem to the accompaniment of Dominic Glynn's Black Light music, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, the Inspiral Carpets and Classic FM. These days, though, my theme tune ought to be Insomnia by Faithless ! The rest of the time, I am very sadly fascinated by listening to late-night phone-ins. They're great for lifting dialogue, and listening to the way people put their views across - or fail to do so!

You're doing a Phd in Literature, how has that helped you write? Does it set some goals which have been achieved by many great works, which Doctor Who books can not hope to reach? Or do you think that Doctor Who books can?

I tend to keep the two very separate. Although I enjoy my research immensely, I try to consider it as work. Writing is hard work, but it also lets you have a great deal of fun! The other problem is that I'm writing about supernatural elements and how they were used by various German writers for artistic expression and social criticism, and this is pretty far removed from Doctor Who. Rebecca at Virgin once pointed out to me that one of my proposals wasn't working precisely because I was thinking in terms of it as, essentially, a ghost story, and Doctor Who doesn't really do that kind of thing. Whenever you have an apparent supernatural force, it's undercut by the mechanics behind it, and turns out to have a rational explanation, or pseudo-rational, by which I mean one that fits in with a scientific explanation, even if the 'science' is a fictional product of a future culture.

Doctor Who books may not be great literature, but they are great entertainment and it really annoys me when people do them down. The NAs have taken the Doctor's adventures into the realms of real sci-fi, and some people have trouble coping with that. Mind you, it's always been the same - there are people who say the programme 'really' ended when it went into colour, for instance, or when Tom Baker left, or after the 18-month hiatus. I just think that's rather sad. Doctor Who is all of it, in its rich diversity, from An Unearthly 100,000 BC in the Spaceship (or whatever it's called this week!) through to McCoy, the NAs and Paul McGann.

Several reviewers and commentators of books and film often talk about "achieving a balance" for example Pulp Fiction is said to be violent, but that it achieves a balance between violence and comedy. The Dimension Riders is said to achieve a balance between "straight-action" books and "emotion" books. Being someone who studies in the Lit world perhaps you could enlighten whether this is true, what does it achieve, and how does it work in The Dimesnion Riders?

Does it really? I'm pleased to hear that, as it's part of what I wanted. I wanted to write a book which was very obviously a New Adventure, but which had its feet on the ground and didn't alienate the traditionalists. It's always tricky making this distinction between 'action' and 'emotion' or, if you like, internal and external action.

The makers of the TV series The Crow Road did a fantastic job in putting over the parts of Iain Banks' book - still one of my all-time favourite novels - which I thought would be unfilmable. For one thing, they externalised a lot of the internal processes by introducing the 'ghost' of the vanished Uncle Rory - that isn't in the book, but his presence pervades it and the narrator is obsessed by the mystery of his disappearance. If you look at the NAs, many of them would be unfilmable, and so they should be, because they're books. You could *just* about film Riders with a big budget and two weeks' location filming or OB in Oxford, but you'd have more trouble filming Requiem, because its content is more thematic than plot-based.

Are straight-action books literature? Are Doctor Who books literature?

Well, I might have answered that already, but I once had an argument about the merits of Tolkien with a Virginia Woolf fan, and I could not get him to accept at all that old JRRT wrote literature. He just saw him as a writer of 'glorified fairy tales'. It made me angry at the time, but these days it would just make me shrug and think, 'Well, it's his loss.' Certainly the borders between popular and 'high' culture are becoming blurred - you get serious articles on the semiotics of Liam Gallagher's posturing, and that sort of thing. You can even do a PhD in Doctor Who if you want!

The Dimesion Riders makes up one fifth of the Alternate Universe series. Now as I understand with these series books, authors tend to develop their novels on their own, and becasue of content, themes etc they're linked together. Firstly was there a more concentrated effort to link these books together, and secndly if not, was there a sense or feeling that you needded to tailor your book within the series?

The series aspect didn't change the book greatly. I had consultations with the other writers, but we all seemed to harmonise fairly well. Serendipity, I suppose!

Darius Kieran Cheynor appears in both your Doctor Who books. Why have you chosen to carry the character from the first book ot the next?

I just liked the idea of having a continuing character. Supporting characters in Who tend to be there to do a job and then disappear! I want to know what happens to these people after the Doctor leaves, but all too often it just isn't possible.

Infinite Requiem moved into the world of telepathy and paranormal, and your Phd looks at the supernatural? Is the current trend in the NAs (as far back as Infintie Requiem) a pheneomenon created by the popularity of The X-Files, or is it that the supernatural has always been a fascination during any counter culture? Why did you choose to write the supernatural element into Infinite Requiem?

Sci-fi, I think, has always been fascinated by the imagery of the paranormal, but not necessarily so much by what it actually means. I wanted to convey the possibilities for the fear and terror of telepathy. Some people reading this will no doubt know Robert Silverberg's The Man In The Maze, which is a story of how telepathy comes to be a curse for one man, and I found that very interesting. I read it over ten years ago, though!

Some people have accussed Doctor Who writers (script writers, editors, authors) of maintaining a British elitism, where you have story after story after story set in England, with english people. Now I think the main problem with this is, that here is this alien who teaches us about unity and equality, "all things to all cultures" as Ben Aaronovitch wrote; but its creaters seem to stick with staying in Britain (mostly England). Shouldn't Doctor Who extend itself to the various cultures and countries on Earth? I bring this up because you showed us an aspect of London which seems to be non existant in Doctor Who (it took Survival to realise that there aren't just Anglo-Saxons living in th UK)?

Could be true. The programme didn't consciously set out to be elitist, though, it just reflected its time. You have the same problem with American series - even recently, in the Star Trek series, it's always American history they go back into whenever they have a time-travel jaunt. I thought it would be fun to do a bit of research into Hindu culture and work that into the book, without creating a conscious 'non-white' character. I would point out that it wasn't London, though, it was a city in the North of England.

The Cut is this real book you have to write. What's it about? How does it differ to a Doctor Who book. What do you want to do in the future, (teach, write books, screenplays? etc). When can we expect The Cut to be released?

That may not be its title - the marketing guys have said we might have to change it, but I'm going to resist for as long as I can! My agent and editor are both on my side, too!

I've finished it, apart from any revisions the editor might ask for - it was finished back in April of 1996 and my agent has been hawking it round London ever since. It got turned down by 4 publishers. One of them didn't take it it, which was fair enough, but the others all said something like, 'Mmm, yes, we can see this is very good, but we haven't got a place for it!' - So frustrating! Anyway, it all came good in the end as I am now with one of the biggest international names in publishing. I think everyone will have heard of Penguin Books!

It's about an 18-year-old girl who hates her life in the town she calls the End of the World, which is this clapped-out seaside resort on the windswept coast of Southern England. It's got elements of a thriller and a kind of dark love story, but it's also about what binds people to their class and their background, and how hard it is to escape the niches that society puts you in. Anyway, it'll be out as a Paperback Original in late 97 or very early 98, in the UK and Commonwealth territories. My agent has retained the foreign rights, so I don't know as yet if it will be out in Europe or the USA. It depends how well it travels.

I enjoy my work teaching languages and literary criticism to adults, especially adult beginners in a foreign language - and I want to carry on with that. It's always advisable for writers to keep their day-job, even as a back-up career, because writing is such an unstable job. Even those who have a Doctor Who book every year won't be able to do it for ever!

You've decided to write a "real" book rather than another Doctor Who book. I would like to know why choose to do that? Is it the case that you wish to expand and develop your writing in other directions.

I always wanted to write. Writing came first, being a Doctor Who fan came afterwards. I never imagined I would do a Doctor Who book, but I'm glad I did, as it taught me a great deal about structuring plots, viewpointing, and so on. The editors at Virgin are very professional and helpful and they gave me a great career start.

I'd like to carry on writing outside the immediate 'literary' area, but apart from another Who book - if I do one - then anything else will probably be under a different name to keep it separate. Maybe it'll just be Daniel R. Blythe, or Rob Blythe, or an anagram like Neil Dalbethy, which I used years ago for a piece in my school magazine! My real name will be kept for the stuff I'm writing as a serious contribution to literature - oh, God, that sounds awful, but how else can I put it?!

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